Nowhere Fast: An Interview with Tara Mantel
by Tara Mantel


I interviewed Tara Mantel soon after the publication of her first book, Elemental, in her spacious and bright office above the garage of her home. She sits at her antique-white desk on an ergonomically sound, wheeled chair. Her design aesthetic features too much symmetry but lots of eclectic pieces—the Victorian side table with flaps is directly opposite the low bookshelf, which runs half the perimeter of the room (I expected more books, frankly) and there’s a low, Japanese-looking tea table stacked with papers and books. There’s a rather silly painting perched on the top of a retro dresser, and, in one corner, a chair that looks to have belonged to a teenager in the 1980s. A yoga mat is in clear view. She has excellent posture.

Tara Mantel: So, you’re actually going to go through with this interview?

Tara Mantel: You said forty-five minutes, right? Because I have to get to Home Depot.

Tara Mantel: Are you renovating?

Tara Mantel: Ha ha ha! I’m the author of a short-story collection, for Christ’s sake. No, I just need some insulation. And I think there’s some kind of critter infestation in my coreopsis. So now that I think about it, I have to go to the nursery as well.

Tara Mantel: Might be those spit bug things. Harmless.

Tara Mantel: Can you recommend a good spray?

Tara Mantel: I’m going to Tweet that you are in good spirits.

Tara Mantel: Well, as long as you’re under that impression, I might as well give you these lilies. I cut them this morning from my garden.

Tara Mantel: I’ve never, ever, ever received flowers from an interviewee. And not that often from anybody else, now that I think about it. In my high school, for Valentine’s Day, you could buy carnations for people. Red ones were for love, pink for like, and white was for friendship. I didn’t get any! Valentine’s Day is stupid. High school is stupid. Carnations are stupid.

Tara Mantel: You’re right about the first two, but carnations cannot be stupid. If I had a bazillion dollars, I’d have fresh flowers, including well-placed carnations, in every room of my home. Or maybe every room would be part greenhouse: you wouldn’t be able to tell whether you were outside or inside. Over this last winter, I tried forced paperwhites. I didn’t realize how fragrant they are. You can’t really use the bulbs again, though—they’re a one-hit wonder.

Tara Mantel: Let’s hope the same doesn’t happen to you.

Tara Mantel: Tell me about it.

Tara Mantel: So you like to garden.

Tara Mantel: Gardening is relaxing and very exciting. You plant stuff, and treat the plants well, and they actually grow! Sometimes very well. I don’t even mind weeding. When you get close to the dirt, you can see that all kinds of things are happening. It’s mind-boggling. Last summer, I discovered that the garden at my new residence contained a plant I could not immediately identify. The plant turned out to be a cultivar of white snakeroot, all the parts of which are poisonous. This plant killed hundreds of people in the 1800s, including Abraham Lincoln’s mother, because these people drank the milk of cows that had consumed the plant.

Tara Mantel: Isn’t there mention of a poisonous plant in your book?

Tara Mantel: Yes. It’s a plant that a young character fantasizes about using to kill her mother. The world is so murderous—I’m shocked that we don’t hear of plant-poison murders more often, though one episode of Breaking Bad had Walter non-fatally poison a child with a plant.

Tara Mantel: Lily of the Valley.

Tara Mantel: One of my very favorites. I appreciated that the show featured the villainous underside of that plant, but the show was all about villainous undersides. However, I am skeptical that those lilies would have thrived potted up near a poolside under the Albuquerque sun.

Tara Mantel: Maybe Walter brewed up a potent nitrogen mixture—you know, one that can feed and fuel any plant in any condition—out of the by-products of meth production.

Tara Mantel: I would not put that past him.

Tara Mantel: And then there was the ricin.

Tara Mantel: It comes from the castor bean plant.

Tara Mantel: What are some of your favorite foreign words that have migrated into English?

Tara Mantel: Joie de vivre. Weltanschaung. Schadenfreude.

Tara Mantel: And now, I really must know: why the hell would you write a short-story collection?

Tara Mantel: Correction: A novel in stories. People said don’t do it, but I did anyway. I don’t plan on doing it again anytime soon. That’s a financial decision, mainly. Short stories are versatile. They get even more versatile when you decide to collect them or link them in various ways. Nowadays, collections do get published—it helps a lot if you are already a known writer—but if you’re new to the industry, you will barely get the time of day from agents and publishers. I will never understand the prejudice. Supposedly people don’t want to read stories, but sometimes I think all of this comes down to marketing. If you marketed the shit out of a collection, people would read it.

Tara Mantel: We sometimes hear that short stories can be more challenging to write than longer pieces. You have to do more with less, every word matters, et cetera.

Tara Mantel: They can be for some people, but I have found that to not be true for me.

Tara Mantel: Weltanschaung really is a good word.

Tara Mantel: I know!

Tara Mantel: What’s a word you hate?

Tara Mantel: Well, “brand” is right up there. “Deployment” and “going forward” and loads of other words and phrases and usages in the corporate lexicon. Also “gal.” Why can’t we just say “woman”? Is “gal” meant to be the counterpart to “guy”? “Guy” is also an actual name for a guy, but I’ve never come across a woman named “Gal.”

Tara Mantel: What about a woman named “Guy”?

Tara Mantel: Maybe that’s the title of a book someone should write: A Gal Named Guy.

Tara Mantel: Maybe you should make “Gal” your pen name.

Tara Mantel: How about “Gal Schadenfreude”? Gal Schadenfreude’s book will be about a woman who hates her name and tries to make other people hate their names.

Tara Mantel: You seem to like being surrounded by interesting furniture. I recall that one of the stories in Elemental features a furniture restorer.

Tara Mantel: Yes. That character appears in only one story. Years ago, I found myself in the small “store” of a furniture restorer—I believe I was inquiring about what would be involved in refurbishing some item I had at the time, and maybe still do. I decided not to have him do the work, but the “store” was really just a renovated porch. It was like walking into a tiny little antiques shop. I remember wondering why I didn’t decide to restore furniture for a living. This is the problem with—or maybe the beauty of—being a writer. You keep wondering why you didn’t decide to do a thousand other things.

It’s possible that I remembered that visit, and how I felt, on some level, when I wrote “Lake Effect,” but it’s also possible that I didn’t. I often do not remember how or why I decide to write about something. But even if I did remember the visit, the character in the story had to be developed way beyond what I knew about the real man who worked on the pieces in his charming little store.

Tara Mantel: That story also contains a character who is haunted by her friend’s suicide, an event that occurred in the lake that the character lives on. Readers have mentioned that the book is haunting—was there any inspiration or intent there?

Tara Mantel: Inspiration, possibly. Intent, no—at least not until understanding that whatever we’re calling “haunt” was being played out thematically in the stories. About half of the stories in the collection are discrete, and appeared in journals previously. Once I decided to collect them, I filled in with other discrete and non-discrete pieces. I don’t remember much about this series of decisions, but I do remember that, for some reason, I was reading a book about Lakota culture and rituals, which do play a small role in a couple of the stories, and that I decided that one way the stories would be connected is by element, as conceived in the Western tradition. I think what I might have noticed is that natural disasters, or just the usual severe weather incidents, appeared in a lot of my stories, and maybe that using elements to create metaphorical and visual connections would be interesting. And severe weather patterns are ominous, which seems related to haunt, in a way. Which led to the thought that fire, say, need not be a literal fire. It is a literal fire in one or two stories, but in another story, the fire comes in the form of a relentless and deadly fever: a fire inside the body. I don’t think that using the elements formally, for structure, is altogether new, but I think it might be for a novel/collection. I didn’t really think about this at the time.

Tara Mantel: Other commentators have talked about the lyricism of your writing.

I don’t really consider myself to be a good storyteller. I arrived at writing at the syllable and negative-space level—poetry. Also, I loved playing music when I was young; I started with the humble recorder in grade school, and then moved on to the oboe, then flute, then guitar, and finally piano, which I played through high school. I was not a terrible player, nor was I stellar; I just loved to play. And I was running around in sports and writing poetry up in my bedroom and spending a lot of time with animals and around lots of land and open space. I remember thinking how syllables and word pairings had rhythm. I liked to see that all come together on the page. I wrote poems in a yellow, spiral-bound notebook. Many years later, my sister somehow came upon this notebook (I think my mom must have found it and passed it on) and wanted to put the poems in some sort of fancy album, which is a ridiculously kind and loving thing to do. But I’m glad she didn’t spend the money and time. I’m not that sentimental. Her intention means more to me.

Tara Mantel: Do you still have the notebook?

Tara Mantel: I believe so.

Tara Mantel: Will you share a snippet or two?

Tara Mantel: If you don’t mind waiting while I get the notebook.

Tara Mantel: I don’t mind.

[Tara goes to get the notebook.]

Tara Mantel: Okay, I’m back. [Tara pages through the notebook.] This poem is called “Weathered Identity.” I’ll recite just a few couplets: “Cry me, I’m a teardrop / Write me, I’m a poem / Capture me, I’m a prisoner / Lift me, I’m a feather / Keep me, I’m faith / Catch me, I’m falling.”

Tara Mantel: Weather, again.

Tara Mantel: Apparently.

This is from one called “Footprints”: “It’s just life, isn’t it / We can stand before it all / We were made to.”

I see here in this other one that I actually used “And lo!” I will not read excerpts from that poem. It seems that I went from strict rhyming form to free verse over the space of about two years. I haven’t looked at these for a very long time.

Tara Mantel: Was it hard to move from poetry to fiction?

Tara Mantel: A little. I found that in my earliest stories, I was strong on description, mood, language, and character. I was weak on plot and dialogue. Later, I started writing film scripts for some reason, which I credit with teaching me plot and how to write revealing dialogue, which both carry a lot of weight in a script. Eventually, my two selves merged, and now I don’t have to remind myself to make sure that some thing or another “happens” in my stories or chapters. The “happening,” of course, can be pretty quiet stuff, but there must be some kind of external movement, some kind of momentum. And I can even conceptualize larger “movements” much more easily.

Tara Mantel: You write in several genres. Do you have a favorite?

Tara Mantel: Someone once called me a writer’s writer. I love and write poetry, essays, “literary” stories, experimental pieces, creative nonfiction, stage plays, scripts, flash fiction, spoofs. Ideas, therefore, come to me typically as whatever the content is plus whatever the delivery format will be: essay, story, spoof, etc. Sometimes an idea could work in various formats, but usually I conceptualize the idea (content or subject), the delivery format (story, novel, etc.), and the internal form (traditional, segmented, experimental) as a whole unit at once. I don’t have a favorite. My focus is fiction and, I’d say, scripts and experimentation in the short form. But this is because there are only so many hours in a day, not because I have favorites.

Tara Mantel: You said in one of your blog posts that all fiction is real.

Tara Mantel: Is that confusing? When I tell people that I’m a writer—especially if I say that I’m a fiction writer—I get one of two responses: either I am totally dismissed because “fiction isn’t real” and/or that I must be “one of those starving-artist types”; or, instead, I am almost revered. The people in the latter category—the worshippers—grant me more authority than they should or that I deserve. I find both responses tedious, but I think I understand where they came from, and they speak volumes about our culture and its relationship to art, artists, and celebrities. I wish I could explain to both groups that writing is a learning tool in addition to a form of expression. It’s the flashlight you hold in a dark maze. The maze can be scary, and you wonder sometimes what the hell you’re doing there and how you got there, but it’s too late now, so you get out the flashlight and find your way, and it doesn’t really matter if you work in some “real” stuff.

I very rarely write about true events. In the past, when I’ve tried to do that, the result is not at all compelling. I’m better when I’m totally, or mostly, making stuff up. However, truth really can be stranger than fiction—it is not hard to find truly extraordinary true stories. But when you write in a form—and writing has some form or another—you necessarily have to manipulate the material to fit the form—even an experimental form. The work itself takes over as it becomes what it is. So for me, it really does not matter whether some idea or part of an idea or character or event is “true” or not, because it has to be presented somehow to become a natural part of the work. And once that happens, there’s a new measure of what verisimilitude is, and that measure is dictated by the work. This obsession some people have with what’s true or not true annoys me. As if memoirs, for instance, are an objective recounting of events. No one is objective.

It’s also important to remember that writing is also a job, especially if you are making a living—or a half-living or a quarter-living or, in my case, a 1/300,000 of a living—from it. Some days, as with any job, you just don’t want to go to work. Other days, you wouldn’t trade that work for any other.

In the case of fiction, you really get to put yourself into all these different worlds and be all of these strange and amazing people.

Tara Mantel: Do you keep a journal?

Tara Mantel: No. I keep files with ideas in them, one file each for essays, stories, novels, flash fiction, script, play, experimental, creative nonfiction, and blog. My daily preoccupations often merge into ideas, so the idea files are all I need, or want.

Tara Mantel: Is writing a way—or the way—to ward off existential angst?

Tara Mantel: Well, now, you’ve hit upon one of my favorite daily preoccupations. The answer, for me, is mostly no. You can read or write as much as the next writer and still essentially be walking around under the cloud. There are times when I cannot read or write anything because I need to stop engaging for a while. I need to just let the air blow through my head, or I just need to exercise, or whatever. If you are fundamentally and infinitely bored, there is not a whole lot that can change this; instead, you have to manage the feeling or condition. In a way, I cannot take any of this too seriously—it’s all too serious to be taken seriously. Even when I am around other writers, I tend to not want to talk about writing. It’s possible that I get burned out, and sometimes the big depressing changes in the book industry weigh too heavily on me. Maybe it’s because I’m less interested in talking about other people’s work than I am in simply experiencing it. Form interests me quite a bit. Writers who combine an interesting form with an interesting voice are exciting to me. Those who take risks. On the other hand, too much risk-taking is tiresome and sometimes even silly. It’s actually quite hard to write a very excellent straightforward story or novel.

But this question was about existential angst. I don’t think I write to feel some connection to others or to verify that I’m alive or to be understood. If you start at the place where almost everything we do is meaningless, you’ve granted yourself some freedom, and I don’t mean freedom to go on crime sprees. In fifty or a hundred or three hundred years, nobody will care much about this book I wrote, or the books I will write. But the freedom comes with answering an answerless, bottomless question: what the hell ought we be doing all day? Drinking? Dropping acid? Certainly dedicating oneself to others somehow is one way out of this maze. The creation of any art—to the extent that you buy that experiencing it or engaging with it is a gift, and that you, as an artist/author, or “interpreter,” create it as an act of generosity so that maybe a viewer/reader will get through another day of utter monotony and needless complication just a little bit more easily—is possibly a way to really contribute to making small moments more meaningful. You’ve helped mitigate the angst.

But certainly I write also because I’m excited about something I see, or some feeling I have, and that impulse, for some reason, sends me to the page—versus the dance floor or the canvas. Why not the dance floor or the canvas? I actually think I’d be okay at both choreography and painting. Maybe the question is, why create anything? Why invent anything? Why keep “improving” everything?

Tara Mantel: We humans, we get curiouser and curiouser. But curiosity killed the cat.

Tara Mantel: And it very well might kill us. Anyway, maybe it’s that the act of creating is so rewarding. And maybe that act is rewarding because it is endless interpretation and a means by which all the hidden beauty and horror of the world become more apparent, and more astonishing. And that makes life easier to live, possibly even to accept.

See, now, I’ve basically talked myself into continuing to write.

Tara Mantel: Will we see you on the reading circuit?

Tara Mantel: If I had a choice, I’d take the few fans I have candlepin bowling and make them tell me everything. I would also be allowed to rant about the Fourth Estate as long as I want.

Tara Mantel: Are you a cynic?

Tara Mantel: Yes, but a warm one.

Tara Mantel: Next book?

Tara Mantel: A somewhat experimental, somewhat spoofy novel about a failing financial institution and its morally challenged, euphemism-endowed employees. I have a third in the works as well, but it’s a secret.

Tara Mantel: Well, at least you have a pithy pitch.

Tara Mantel: Tell me about it.

Tara Mantel: And your next book sounds quite different from Elemental.

Tara Mantel: I am large; I contain multitudes.